Since its official founding in 1985 at the height of the Lebanese civil war and in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah has grown into the most dominant force on the national level and an influential player on the regional one. Building on a Shia Islamic rhetoric of oppression, injustice, and resistance, Hezbollah has entrenched itself within the majority of the Shia-populated areas of Lebanon. This rallying ideology is supported by sophisticated military capabilities, an extensive social services network, an effective propaganda machine, and Iranian funding. Altogether, these factors have molded Hezbollah into a mass movement with significant political, military, socioeconomic, and religious influence. Central to the message that Hezbollah propagates among its supporters and the general Lebanese population is the idea of “resistance”. Because it is a core concept, Hezbollah has dedicated significant resources to monopolize its claim over it and frame the narrative around it. This paper will go through the theoretical foundations of propaganda and narrative framing, the initial monopolization of anti-Israeli resistance through both military and constructivist tactics, the expansion of the concept of resistance to include the defense of Assad in Syria and operations beyond Lebanese borders, how Trump’s Middle East policy is further serving this narrative, and conclude with the malleability of the concept of resistance to suit developing interests.
Framing a Historical Narrative
Privately owned media institutions are systematically used for the dissemination of propaganda. This strategy is deliberately used for shaping perceptions, manipulating opinion, and directing behavior of the intended audience. The degree of reception however varies as several discourses compete over public influence. Within these discourses, the language and images produced reflect a certain culture through which reality and discussion are framed. The symbolism used is rooted in the historical, ideological, and cultural knowledge of the audience. In other words, the message is “encoded into meaningful discourse within the framework of knowledge of the sender” which is then decoded by the audience within a similar framework. The process of encoding and decoding is not linear however. It could occur within the hegemony of a dominant discourse, partially accepted but includes some critical logic, or opposed by those who resist that hegemony. This dominant hegemony is not constant as it is continuously incorporated to maintain the consent of a certain social group. It is a wholesome sociopolitical process where cultural meanings, beliefs, values, and practices are formed, renewed, defended, and modified. The ultimate aim is to form a “regime of truth” because formulating one’s own truth which is accepted by the targeted segment of the public is linked to power. In Lebanon, there are several hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses between and within the different sectarian communities, prominently that of Hezbollah and the Shia community.
Shia in Lebanon: The Deprived
At the time of Lebanon’s independence in 1943, 85% of the Shia population was concentrated in rural and peripheral areas of the country, notably the South and the Baalbek-Hermel region. Wealthy landowners controlled the overwhelming majority of land in the Shia countryside which enabled the exploitation of farmers. These landowners were also the politically influential families who acted as intermediaries with the state; thus, clientalist and patronage networks were a key characteristic. Living conditions and social indicators were among the lowest in terms of illiteracy rates, income, educational levels, health services, and allocation of the state budget. This socioeconomic marginalization extended to the political sphere as well compared to the Maronite and Sunni positions in the state. Despite being allocated the Speaker of Parliament post, the powers associated with it were limited, and thus the Shia were left on the margins of political life with low influence. Even in state administration, the Shia community was the most poorly represented. Only around 3% of the governmental posts were occupied by Shia in 1960s. Some improvements were witnessed following the efforts of Imam Sadr and the reform measures introduced by President Chehab; for instance, the Shia share of first level civil service positions increased to 22% by the 1970s while students in the public schools more than tripled.
Different socioeconomic and security circumstances led to a high rate of urban migration, significantly from Shia rural areas. On a national scale, the urbanized population of Lebanon increased from 25% in 1950 to 65% in 1975. Specifically for Shia, 63% were living in cities by 1973. Poorly paid and exploited jobs, a rise in unemployment, the formation of a poverty belt around the capital, increased connectivity, and a more direct exposure to discrimination all played a role in politically mobilizing the Shia population. This coincided with the migration of some Shia to West Africa from which they sent remittances back home and accumulated economic capital. Gradually, the hold of traditional elites gave way to rising movements such as leftist parties and Amal led by Musa Sadr. More relevant to this paper is the latter mobilizing force as Sadr’s message of the Shia being a “deprived population in Lebanon” resonated with large numbers of peasants, workers, and urban middle class Shia.
This feeling of deprivation among the Shia population became part of the Shia sectarian subconscious and at the core of the message propagated by Hezbollah. Founded by defectors from Amal, Hezbollah’s leaders presented themselves as the true continuers of Sadr’s message and continue to do so until today. Because of the religious nature of Hezbollah’s ideology, a link was thus established between the historical Shia religious experience of Imam Hussein, namely oppression and suffering from injustice, to the experience of the Shia in Lebanon. Religious symbolism can be seen in all major events and commemorations, most notably during Ashura. This historical background infused with religion continues to rally the majority of Shia Lebanese in support of Hezbollah’s arms, not only in defense against possible Israeli aggression, but also as a major element of pride and source of respect as well as leverage for political and economic influence in the sectarian system.
Circumstances of Hezbollah’s Formation
Amidst the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Lebanon was shattered after 4 years of war and foreign occupation. The Shia community’s long-standing grievances, disproportionate suffering from the Israeli-PLO clashes in Southern Lebanon, and disappearance of popular leader Imam Sadr all provided fertile ground for Iran to export the Islamic revolution. Because of the ongoing civil war, Iranian Revolutionary Guards were able to establish training camps in the Bekaa Valley in the early 1980s relatively undetected. Subsequent years saw the movement grow from a limited number of committed cadres to a coherent organization. The 1985 open letter outlined Hezbollah’s main goals as the application of Islamic law, rejection of Western values, fighting against US and Israeli occupations of Lebanon, waging jihad, destroying Israel while rejecting any mediation, and liberating Palestine. Contradictory analysis is present regarding the main undeclared aim of the party as they range between the liberation of land from occupation to merely serving as a proxy for Iran in the region. Whilst reality tends to fall within both assumptions, the main mobilizer of the party’s support from the Shia community was its resistance activities against Israeli forces in Lebanon. This constituted the main pillar on which the party framed itself as it expanded its influence and simultaneously pursued its side objectives.
Monopolizing the Resistance
While propagating a narrative of resistance against Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah set out to monopolize this claim as it systematically assassinated influential figures of the Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF – commonly known as Jammul) such as Mehdi Amel, Suhail Tawile, and Hussein Mroue. This also included leaking any LNRF plans to their Syrian contacts to foil their attacks. The liquidation campaign created a climate of fear among sympathizers of leftist forces in Shia-majority areas. It was waged right after the LNRF had played a central part in driving the Israeli forces out of Rashaya, West Bekaa, and large areas of the South into the “security belt”. Despite the LNRF’s military activities against the Israeli occupation, Hezbollah disavowed them for their secular ideals. Regional considerations were also in play as the Syrian regime, a key ally of Iran and Hezbollah by proxy, wanted to neutralize the “rogue” actions of the LNRF leadership. Consequently, in the second half of the 1980s, following the weakening of the LNRF and Amal suspending most of its anti-Israeli activities after the 1985 partial Israeli withdrawal, with heavy Syrian and Iranian backing, Hezbollah gradually became the sole acting force in the South. This followed the deal struck between Syria and Iran over controlled attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon by Hezbollah operatives.
The monopoly was then legitimized in the Taef Agreement as most militias largely disbanded barring several pro-Assad parties as well as Hezbollah, which was officially recognized as the resistance. This was not completely straightforward as President Hrawi and Prime Minister Karami demanded that Hezbollah disarm just like other militias; however, Hezbollah refused this demand and argued that it is not a militia but rather a resistance movement whose primary target is Israel. Tensions between the party and the government remained during the 1990s with some clashes occurring with Hezbollah supporters. This reflected the disagreement between the government’s reliance on diplomatic means for the withdrawal of Israeli forces compared to the party’s armed resistance approach. A key representation of these opposing visions was Lebanon’s participation in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Lebanon’s foreign minister Fares Boueiz stated that Lebanon is a “peace-loving country” while demanding the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanese territories. This withdrawal, according to Boueiz, would nullify the pretexts used to justify acts of resistance against occupying forces. The participation of Arab Sunni leaders in the conference and their willingness to accept peace with Israel was portrayed by the Iranian leadership and Hezbollah as an act of treason against the Palestinian cause and a surrender to US-Israeli imperialism. This stance against a “surrendering peace”, as well as escalating tensions during the negotiations, gave the “axis of resistance”, especially Iran and Hezbollah, increased legitimacy among the populations of the region.
The election of President Lahoud in 1998 marked a change in the rocky relations. Despite this, further legitimacy was gained through consecutive cabinet policy statements recognizing the “resistance” since 1991, albeit under different phrasing to suit the political balance of power of the time.
Consolidation of Control over the Shia Community
The constitutional and on the ground military recognition of Hezbollah as the resistance movement went hand in hand with a sophisticated multifaceted campaign to win over the hearts and minds of the Shia community, largely through the lens of being the sole legitimate resisting force to Israeli occupation. This was supported and propagated by the media apparatus of the party using banners, chants, television documentaries, series, songs, and graphics placated in public spaces and commemorations. Public squares were also renamed such as Resistance Avenue and Jerusalem Avenue. A dedicated artistic team within Hezbollah’s media office also handled the production of posters, images, and illustrations since 1985. All members of the team were ardent members of the party who abided by its discourse. Fallen Hezbollah soldiers would be idolized in posters as martyrs of the resistance surrounded by religious mythology, al-Aqsa and Palestine references, and anti-Israeli narratives. All this symbolism and even the public rhetoric of Hezbollah leaders underwent gradual changes during the 1990s as the party shifted its resistance discourse from a purely Islamic one to a more national one to resonate with a still at the time skeptical segment Shia population as well as the overall Lebanese population.
Schools are widely acknowledged tools of instilling nationalism, ethics, and values among students and the future generations by the state. Because of the weakness of Lebanon’s public school system and the enrolment of the majority of students in private-run institutions, Hezbollah, whilst not exclusively, has the capability to propagate its narrative and vision to the Shia population. Technical institutes and private schools, such as al-Mahdi and al-Mustapha, under the umbrella of the party serve to instill religious values coupled with the concept of resistance. These go hand in hand with extracurricular activities such as the al-Mahdi scouts and organizing Ashoura processions.
Specific organizations such as the Lebanese Association for the Arts were founded to implement cultural projects revolving around the needed values of a “resistance society”. Ajyal al-Mustapha for example is a widely circulated journal which describes school activities, interviews religious leaders, includes poems, and touches upon other general topics – all of which aim to construct Hezbollah’s version of a Shia identity. Some of the student-submitted drawings include Karbala, the South, the resistance, and the liberation from Israeli occupation, and Hezbollah members fighting Israeli soldiers. Memorial museums such as Khiam and Mleeta are also conscious attempts to build popular hegemony and influence people by narrating a particular culture, history, and memory. Another glaring example is the series al-Ghaliboun which was broadcasted by al-Manar and portrayed the main protagonist as a secular fighter in the 1980s who opts to join Hezbollah because of their higher effectiveness and faith. Such representation dilutes the role played by leftist parties against the Israeli occupation and further feeds into the historical narrative the party aims to propagate. The increasingly effective use of media by Hezbollah resonated among the population since the 1990s as the filming of combat zones, liberated areas with Hezbollah flags, and material and human losses of Israeli forces all empowered the position of the party as the resistance against the occupation.
An indirect method of strengthening the resistance narrative is tending to the needs of the supportive population bearing the burden of the military struggle. Through an advanced social services and clientalist network, Hezbollah further enshrined itself within the Shia community and solidified its influence over its majority. Some of the services provided include reconstruction efforts, financial support, scholarships, and healthcare.
Because of the centrality of the struggle against Israel to Hezbollah’s narrative in Lebanon, considerable resources and efforts are dedicated to shape the perception of the Shia population and its role in it. “Repetition is the best dialectic means for working on the popular mentality” stated Gramsci about the hegemonic goals of a movement – in this case, the hegemonic resistance narrative of Hezbollah. All of these constructivist tactics go along with intimidation techniques from both party cadres and the supporting population against any dissident who questions the propagated narrative and “opposes the resistance”. The result of this is the formation of an “anti-Israeli resistance culture” infused with a sectarian Shia approach.
Syrian Intervention – Nurturing and Promoting the Axis of Resistance
As the Syrian war intensified and Hezbollah militarily intervened in support of Assad, the resistance now encompassed two intertwined enemies: jihadist groups and Israel. In his speeches over the course of the Syrian war, Nasrallah has broadened the concept of resistance to justify a wide military intervention in defense of the Assad regime. In 2011, Nasrallah stated that the fall of Assad serves Israeli and American interests. A few months later the same year, he reaffirmed the US conspiracy to divide Syria and liquidate the Palestinian cause. In 2012, he accused the West, Israel, and some Arab states of conspiring against Assad because of his support for the resistance. In 2013, Nasrallah again described Syria as the “backbone of the resistance, so the resistance cannot stand still while that is being ruined”. This then extended in 2013 to labeling the Syrian opposition as takfiris and describing a sort of doomsday scenario: “If Syria falls in the hands of the USA, Israel, Takfiris, and US instruments in the region, then the resistance will be besieged, and “Israel” will invade Lebanon to impose its conditions and revive its project again. If Syria falls, then Palestine, the Palestinian resistance, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Holy al-Qods (Jerusalem) will be lost and the people of our region will face a dark and cruel era”. The discourse and framing of the intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime reverberated among the ranks and supporters of Hezbollah as one fighter stated “It was a war on takiris who threatened the resistance axis comprised of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. There is no opposition and no rebels, just terrorists”. Since the beginning, the irrevocable link between Assad’s survival and the resistance was established.
From a strategic point of view, the justification for the intervention was complete. Most supporters of Hezbollah bought into the rhetoric and saw the war in Syria as an existential threat. This however was not the end point. Just as Hezbollah monopolized the resistance against Israel on behalf of all of Lebanon, it did the same with the fight against jihadist groups. Nasrallah declared that Hezbollah is not only fighting alongside Assad for the party and the Shia but rather to protect all of Lebanon and its different religious communities from the looming takfiri threat. Hezbollah was now being framed as the protector of Lebanon by waging a “war on terrorism”. Just as Shia Lebanese did not trust the army and the state to guarantee their security against Israel, the same now applied to jihadist groups in neighboring Syria. The military involvement was not limited to Syrian territories as the most credibility to the anti-jihadist discourse was gained during the battle against ISIS and al-Qaeda linked jihadist groups on the Lebanese-Syrian border during the summer of 2017. Hezbollah’s involvement and indirect coordination with the Lebanese Army during the battles further fed the narrative of the need of the Lebanese state and its armed forces, which had been intentionally kept in a position of weakness by world powers close to Israel, for the support of Hezbollah in the defense of its eastern border, just like the Southern one. This cohabitation with the army at the border allowed the party to claim counterinsurgency successes, partly managed and planned by the army, as its own.
Broadening the Concept of Resistance
Throughout the military involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict since 2011, the party never abandoned its anti-Israeli and resistance rhetoric – instead the level of threat which Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah levied against Israel increased as it began to include offensive capabilities rather than merely defensive ones. One of the scenarios is Hezbollah launching an offensive beyond the Lebanese border into the Galilee region. Nasrallah has clearly and repeatedly pointed to the presence of such plan in case a future war breaks out. It is assumed that, under the cover of heavy rocket fire, the Special Forces Radwan Unit would infiltrate the Galilee through a network of tunnels and attempt to control relatively isolated villages. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, while costly, has bolstered the militia’s combat experience which will be critical for any offensive operation; however, circumstances against Israel would be different as Israeli forces are more organized than Syrian rebels and possess air support whilst Hezbollah does not in the absence of the Russian and Syrian airforce. Second, the military personnel Hezbollah can call upon has reportedly more than doubled from around 20,000 to 45,000 fighters. Third, Hezbollah has seemingly developed a complex tunnel network reaching across the border. In spite of the well-known reliance of the party on advanced underground tunnels throughout its confrontation with Israel, they were limited to Lebanese territory. Six tunnels were discovered and destroyed by the Israeli Army in December 2018 and January 2019, but doubts were cast over their operability and whether many others remain. A fourth development is a surge in the number of rockets in the possession of Hezbollah. While believed to be around 15,000 during the 2006 war, current estimates point to well over 100,000. This quantitative leap is coupled with a qualitative one as long-range and precision missiles which can reach all Israeli territory and strike strategic locations have been acquired, albeit credible numbers and degree of precision are hard to obtain. Some of these sensitive locations were explicitly stated by Nasrallah during an interview in July such as the Ben-Gurion International Airport, Israeli Defense Forces Headquarters in Tel Aviv, air force bases, Hadera power plant, Ashdod sea port, Dimona nuclear facility, and Haifa ammonia tanks.
Beyond the technical and personnel advancement Hezbollah has managed in Lebanon, it has made use of its military presence in Syria to strategically expand its anti-Israel operations into the South of the country. Several Israeli air raids have already been conducted on the Syrian side of the border of the occupied Golan Heights. Reports point to four Hezbollah bases in Southern Syria, three of which are in or around Daraa while the fourth is in the Quneitra region. Around 1,000 fighters are present in these areas of which several villages are under the de-facto control of Hezbollah. Through this expansion, as well as the possible infiltration into the Galilee, Hezbollah is gradually transforming itself from a Lebanese-based defensive force into an offensively capable one operating on multiple fronts. Thus, the resistance in this case has been broadened to entail anti-Israeli operations from outside the Lebanese border, namely from Southern Syria, and is no longer limited to the liberation of Lebanese territory exclusively but also historical Palestine, namely the Galilee region.
Trump’s Middle East Policy – Feeding the Narrative?
Amid the absence of a direct and serious confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel since the war in 2006, and as Hezbollah’s involvement in regional conflicts, most notably the Syrian conflict, was still in full swing, Trump’s announcement of the US recognition of Israeli annexation of the occupied Golan Heights in March 2019 empowered the resistance rhetoric that was being pushed since 2011. The same US-Israeli alliance branded together with jihadist groups aiming to “divide Syria and break the resistance axis” is now annexing occupied Syrian lands. The decision shifted the conversation away from Hezbollah’s military backing of an oppressive regime back to their role as a resistance force against Israel. Prior to the recognition, Trump also broke international consensus by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018. The move was highly symbolic since both Palestinians and Israelis claim the city as their capital. The same expansionist policy was also reiterated by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who stated that he intends to annex settlements in the West Bank. This has been linked to Trump’s unwavering support for the Jewish state and was echoed by the US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. All three moves have shown that any kind of peace settlement is becoming increasingly difficult, if not even impossible, amid the radical policies being pursued by the Israeli government, backed by the United States. Such policies empower the arguments of the “Axis of Resistance” of the necessary use of force for any kind of advancement for the Palestinian cause. Nasrallah reacted to the US Golan recognition by stating that it proves “resistance, resistance, and resistance” is the only way of liberating Israeli occupied lands, and that the decision dealt a “knockout punch” to peace efforts in the region. In short, the Trump administration’s strategy towards the region have actually helped the party regain some of its lost legitimacy as the “resistance” refocuses its efforts against the aggressive US-Israeli policy in Palestine.
Amid this hostile rhetoric and aggressive US pro-Israeli policy, imposing sanctions on Hezbollah figures and funding sources will most likely rally the supporters of the party to its side, regardless of the negative socioeconomic consequences which may arise. All the above mentioned propagation of a resistance and victimhood narrative will strongly resonate among Hezbollah supporters as US pressure ramps up. The sanctions will undoubtedly be linked and seen as a continuation to the US embassy move, Golan Heights, support for Israeli expansionist policies, and the “war against the resistance axis” in Syria.
Over the past decades, Hezbollah has successfully framed itself as the main resistance force against Israeli occupation, both militarily and in the minds of its supporters. The significant resources dedicated by the party to controlling the narrative and establishing hegemony over it highlights its importance to Hezbollah’s vision and even survival. The narrative of resistance has successfully won over the hearts and minds of the Shia population, built up popular support, and ensured continued legitimacy in the eyes of many Lebanese. As the interests of the party change over time, the resistance rhetoric has proved a flexible and deeply influential tool. From the growing control over Lebanese domestic politics to the expansion of military activities to encompass opposition and jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to drawing offensive plans across the Southern Lebanese border to supporting Iran in a potential war against the United States, the dominating narrative that the party consistently propagates has laid the groundwork for its audience to be receptive to any new enemy at hand. Behind Hezbollah’s military apparatus lies a deep and sophisticated network constantly framing and reframing the past and present to maintain hegemony over the narrative of resistance and consequently the Shia population of Lebanon.References
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